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THEATER REVIEW: Retold ‘Winter’s Tale’ finds clarity and fun

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“A Winter’s Tale” by William Shakespeare / Walking the dog theater

IN THE COZY THEATER space on the Hawthorne Valley School campus, “The Winter’s Tale” audience is casually welcomed by what seems like a band of Elizabethan strolling players. Drumbeats and improvised modal melodies come from one side of the room. Oh. This is a party! How utterly natural it feels. Bit by bit the company assembles on stage, the house lights dim, and the entertainment begins.

The illusion is that the company has recently rolled into town, gathered some locals to augment its professional cast, and proceeded to perform with practiced grace.

One of the most animated welcomers is a sparkling boy, who, once the play is in motion, manages to steal whole sections of Act I. The actor is Yuan-Rong Liao, playing the king’s son, Mamillius. Later she also plays the teenage girl, Perdita. (Double casting is abundant here.)

Even if you are not a fan of the two-boxes-on-an-empty-stage sort of approach to production, you will find that this one works. The boxes are painted raspberry. There are three raspberry flats in front of dark velvet curtains, and set-wise that’s about it. Oh yes, on stage left are two groups of gongs on raspberry stands. (They pleasingly mark scene changes and time passing.)

This is just the beginning of Melania Levitsky’s directorial magic. She has put together a nearly flawless version of one the more unwieldy examples of Shakespeare’s list. She has divided the play in two, and her direction of part I, in particular, is full of creative, surprising, clarifying details, particularly the sense of King Leontes’ lively, loving family and, of course, the growth of the his jealous pathology.

She has an enormous asset in David Anderson as Leontes. Anderson brings his intense, uninterrupted reality to the playwright’s words. Moment by moment it flows easefully—even in Leontes’ frightful rages. He is an actor who glues eyes to his every turn of the head, tip of the shoulder, or stride across stage—without any apparent intention to do so.

Laura Portocarrero, as his wife Hermione, is strong. That is why, when later the exigencies of double casting bring her back as a cavorting rustic, the effect is mildly disconcerting. Not that she is not a convincing rustic, she is. But the audience may cling to her queenly persona.

Benedicta Bertau and James Luse are also standouts among the cast members. Once again the audience may suffer mildly from double-casting-resistance. But Bertau is luminous in both roles. (Her clowning skills shine, though the clown never covers the real person she creates.) Luse’s mobile face and impressive person make it difficult to accept him as two different characters, but he is always a pleasure to watch. Wilhelmina Sharp as the irrepressible Pauline is a force. She is ever-confronting and importunate while somehow remaining feminine and attractive.

Paul Boothroyd, in his comedic spot at the beginning of the second act, has yet to ply the skill so remarkable in the above-mentioned actors—that of delivering high-energy scenes easefully. However, his sleight-of-hand, thieving scene is brilliant.

Maybe you have wondered why “The Winter’s Tale” is titled “The Winter’s Tale.” Not much winter here. It might be true that, in the 16th century, the phrase would have suggested a fantastical story–one not to be taken too seriously. That idea helps justify the too quick reversal of Leontes’ jealousy, the what-could-be Disneyesque “chased by a bear” scene, the 16-year leap in the story, the long scene featuring a live human as statue, and the too-neat tidying up of family and mates at the very end. These stretch audience credulity and demand that we suspend disbelief as we do with a children’s story. Levitsky is keen in handling these built-in problems. She makes them work (even the bear-chasing works), and where they don’t, I blame Shakespeare!

The gongs, the recorder-playing, some lovely part-singing, the dances are all director-inspired joys in this production. This evening is a Shakespeare-Levitsky-Anderson winner.

At the end, the director adds a piece of rousing, inventive choreography that sprints to the bows—a surprising, exclamation point in movement. Whew. Fun!

 

 

 

 

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